I recently read an email from an anxious writer about whether or not we have to grab the agents attention in the first 500 words. Honestly I think that is probably a good buffer of about 250 words – and we need to remember that agents are human.
Sometimes as writers we get locked into adversarial thinking. Us against the thousands of submissions agents receive, and us against the high wall of the agents attention span. It can feel like it isn’t fair, or it’s too hard.
An agent’s day job is pitching the manuscripts they’ve already accepted to editors, to publishing houses, to be an advocate for their author throughout the process. When they’ve spent eight hours doing that, then they go home and start on the ‘slush’ pile. That’s right. They’re reading new submissions in their off time.
Do you know what I’m doing in my off time? Well it depends – when I’m done making dinner, packing lunches, ensuring homework and baths get done, and my two young children don’t destroy each other over the Mouse Trap game (someone needs to pick the yellow mouse! You can’t both use red!) I’m catching up on my reading, doing yoga (Adriene I love you) or if it’s a bad day, bingeing the next fantasy series on Netflix and eating ice cream after the kiddos are tucked in bed.
I assume agents don’t take the job then move to a deserted island in the pacific ocean. I assume they also have spouses, loved ones, some have young children, pets, maybe sick parents, possibly an addiction to amazon shopping, you know….they’re human.
So if it seems hard, or that good, slow moving literature can’t catch a break these days – maybe you’re right. Society in general is more distracted and our attention spans aren’t the greatest in the best of times.
But don’t let that dissuade you from trying, and remember it isn’t a fight, or a contest, it’s a marathon, and they WANT to find a good story to advocate for. Good stories are why they got into the literary business in the first place. It isn’t ‘us’ against ‘them’ it’s us against ourselves. Learn something every day. Don’t stop until you know it all. (So, never). And keep at it.
Denzel Washington once said, “If you hang around the barber shop, eventually you’re going to get a hair cut.” And if your novel or poem is the next Hemingway or Morrison, that will shine through.
Now go forth and write a lot, and when you’re ready, submit with grace. They’re waiting for the next great work of art to rock their world.